Erik Ten Hag -The man tasked with rebuilding Manchester United

Erik Ten Hag has recently begun his reign as Manchester United manager, and he faces a hugely difficult task in changing the fortunes of arguably the biggest football club in the world.

It’s a job that some of the world’s best coaches, including Jose Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal, have been tasked with in recent times and have ultimately failed to deliver success. Ten Hag undoubtedly has a hugely difficult job on his hands to change the fortunes of the club. However, former players who have worked under him as well as fellow coaches, friends and experts of the game speak so highly of him that it shows some promise for Manchester United.

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Throughout his life, the United manager has experienced many personal losses as well as the many successes and achievements in his playing and managerial career. According to the Athletic, one of Ten Hag’s closest friends, Andy Scharmin, died in a plane crash. They grew up together in Haaksbergen in Holland and played football together from a young age. In the summer of 1989, the young left back travelled back to Suriname to play in a game for a team of Dutch-Surinamese players.

However, tragedy struck, and the plane crashed outside Suriname’s capital Paramaribo, killing 176 of the 187 people on the plane, including Scharmin. This was a devastating loss for Ten Hag and according to the Athletic, when asked about the incident he said “I will never forget my team-mate Edwin Hilgerink standing on my doorstep to tell me that a plane had crashed with Andy and his mother on board. “That was a huge blow. It happened on June 7, 1989 — and every year on that date I have a day of mourning.”

The new United manager has sadly faced other personal losses during his life. According to the Daily Mail, a friend and former youth teammate of his called Gino Weber died at the age of 33. Weber suffered from depression and addiction problems and sadly, he died in 2003 due to an overdose of alcohol and medication. This death had a significant impact on Ten Hag, who has remained in contact with Weber’s family ever since.

Furthermore, the Daily Mail reported that Ten Hag’s coaching philosophy was shaped by his mentor and former coach Epi Drost, who sadly died of a heart attack aged 49 in 1995. ‘I often think back to my youth at Twente,’ said Ten Hag. ‘Three boys could have made it to the national team. But one of them was seriously injured and two other boys died young. It puts everything into perspective’. The Dutchman also said ‘Epi Drost was my idol. Epi died due to a cardiac arrest during a match. That was a massive blow for me.’ These personal losses have had a huge impact on Ten Hag, and it is understood that he has been motivated to succeed and take the opportunities that those close to him never had.

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Ten Hag’s coaching career began with underage teams at FC Twente, before he became assistant manager at the club working under Steve McCLaren. His first job as manager was with Go Ahead Eagles in the second division in Holland. Ten Hag is said to have changed the mentality at Go Ahead Eagles and he guided them to their first promotion to the Eredivisie in 17 years in 2013. Successful spells have followed as manager of FC Utrecht and as the reserve team coach for Bayern Munich. At Bayern, he worked under Pep Guardiola, and he has often been compared to the Spaniard. His obsessive nature over the smallest details is similar to Guardiola’s meticulous approach to the game.

The Athletic recently reported that whilst Ten Hag was manager at Utrecht, he would regularly stop training to give feedback to players. This is something he learned from Pep during their time together at Bayern. In an interview with The Athletic, Robbin Ruiter, Ten Hag’s goalkeeper at Utrecht said:

Every 10 or 20 seconds he would stop, and he would tell us what we could do better and expects from us. Like Guardiola, he’s obsessed with football. They both think about football 24/7.

Another high-profile coach to work with Ten Hag is former England manager Steve McClaren. Ten Hag was assistant manager to McClaren at FC Twente from 2006 to 2009. Speaking to The Athletic, McClaren said of Ten Hag that on the first day of pre-season:

He brought out this folder, and there were six weeks’ worth of pre-season training planned in there. Every minute of every day was laid out, I’d not seen anything like it before.

McClaren further outlined Ten Hag’s capabilities by saying “He could see things in the game that nobody else could see, myself included,”. His successes at home in the Netherlands and with Bayern Munich led to Ajax appointing him as manager late in 2017. In his time with the Dutch side, Ajax won three league titles and two domestic cups. Ten Hag implemented a creative and attacking style of football at Ajax that has been compared to Johan Cruyff’s total football philosophy of the game. Under the Dutchman, Ajax brought in several young players through their academy as well as making good signings that bolstered their performances domestically and in Europe.

Their performances in the Champions League in 2019 saw them beat Juventus and Real Madrid in the knockout stages to reach the semi-final where they agonisingly lost to Tottenham in the last minute on away goals. Although they lost the semi-final in a heart-breaking manner, it was the club’s best performance in the competition since 1995. An example of Ten Hag’s meticulous planning was seen after their 4-1 victory away to Real Madrid to reach the quarter finals. According to the Athletic, on the flight back from Madrid, the Ajax boss was watching clips of Fortuna Sittard, their next opponents in the league. Speaking to the Athletic, an old friend of the new United manager, Clemens Zwijnenberg said “Sometimes you think, ‘Enjoy it more’,” but this professional approach was what got Ten Hag to this level, and he proved to be right as Ajax beat Fortuna Sittard 4-0 in their next match.

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Ten Hag’s success at Ajax has ultimately led to him getting the Manchester United job. His attacking style of football as well as his ability to nurture young talents have been key factors in getting this job as these are hugely important at Manchester United. Although Ten Hag has had huge success in his career, there are many doubters who say that this is a huge step up for him and that he has never managed at a high enough level to get this job.

Furthermore, the job is a hugely difficult one considering how bad United have been in recent years and how big the gap is between them and the top sides in the Premier League. The job will unquestionably be the most difficult of Ten Hag’s career so far, but this doesn’t mean he can’t be successful. He has gradually moved up the coaching ladder from managing Go Ahead Eagles in the second division of Dutch football to managing Ajax in the Champions League. He has been successful at every club he has been at and the way fellow coaches, players who have played under him and experts of the game talk about him shows promise.

It will take time for the Dutchman to impose his game plan and possibly complete a squad overhaul but if he is given time, he can be successful. He will continue to remember those who he has lost along the way and the heartbreak of that will drive him on and motivate him to succeed as well as make him realise how lucky he is to be in this position.

The Author

Darren O'Keeffe

I am a Manchester United fan and aspiring football journalist. I have recently completed a Sports Journalism Diploma in Dublin Business School (DBS).

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